ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- It may seem as if the Lance Berkman-to-the-Yankees deal happened overnight, but in fact, Berkman's arrival Saturday was the culmination of a nearly four-year journey.
After the 2006 season, when the Houston Astros went from World Series runners-up the year before to rapidly declining mediocrities, allowing Andy Pettitte to escape via free agency and beginning a purge that would result in the loss of Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls, Chris Burke and Dan Wheeler, Berkman marched into the GM's office and made the following announcement: "Trade me. I want to go to the Yankees."
And yet, sitting in the visitors' dugout at Tropicana Field on Saturday in the batting practice togs of the Yankees, Berkman still could hardly believe his request had finally been filled.
"It's kind of surreal," said Berkman, officially acquired by the Yankees at around 1:30 p.m. for two minor-leaguers, Mark Melancon and Jimmy Paredes, and batting second in the lineup for Saturday's game as the DH. "I never thought in a million years it would happen. I didn't think a set of circumstances would come along that would make this happen, but I'm very happy to be here. I think it's a great situation."
Berkman, a native Texan who had played his entire career as an Astro, said his friendship with Pettitte was a big factor in convincing him that although his heart, and family, may have been in Houston, his career belonged in New York.
"Andy always told me, 'It's a great place to play, a great organization, a place where you have the chance to play in a World Series every year,'" Berkman said. "I always had the sense when he was [in Houston] that he really wanted to be here. I would always give him a hard time and say, 'You're going back to the Yankees. You know you are.'"
Pettitte, of course, did and now Berkman has joined him, even if only for the remaining 60 games of the regular season and whatever happens in October. Once a feared power hitter -- he batted .315, hit 45 homers and drove in 136 runs in 2006 -- Berkman's numbers, at age 34, have plunged, to .245, 13 and 49. Some of that he attributes to preseason knee surgery, the fourth of his career, which robbed him of spring training. And some of it no doubt has to do with the malaise that comes from a club going nowhere and playing for nothing but its paychecks.
"I think it can be revolutionary, I really do," Berkman said of his first change of address in his 12-year major-league career. "I'm not saying that it will be, but that's one of the reasons I chose here. I was at the point in my career where something had to change. I needed to get into a situation where you're scared again, and this kind of borders on that because you got a lot of expectations to do well.
"Everybody knows if you come up here and do great, people will love you, and if you flop, they'll say, 'This guy's a bum, get him out of here.' So either way, it's stimulating. It's a very different from the environment I was in in Houston. I want to put myself in that situation just to see what I got, what I got left."
How much Berkman has left could have a profound effect on how far the Yankees go this season. Ever since Nick Johnson was sidelined with a wrist injury that required surgery in May, the Yankees have not had an everyday DH. They have used the spot as a dumping ground either for regulars needing a partial day off or bench players needing some playing time.
Starting Saturday, the spot belongs to Berkman, although Joe Girardi said he might also get some time in the outfield and at first base. For now, all the Yankees want is his bat, in the two-hole that has usually belonged to Nick Swisher since Johnson's injury. In his first Yankees at-bat, Berkman flied out softly to shallow right in the first inning against Matt Garza.
As a career-long National League player, Berkman has seen limited duty as a DH but has performed well in the role, batting .378 (17-for-45) with two homers and four RBIs.
"I like it, but of course, I like it from the NL perspective in that you can get a couple of days off," Berkman said. "It's probably going to be different being a full-time DH. It'll take some getting used to, and I'm sure there will be an adjustment period. But I think it will actually be good for my knee. It could be a very good thing."
In Berkman, Girardi sees more than just a switch-hitter with power he can drop into the top of his order. He regards him as an experienced veteran he can trust more than the kid combo of Colin Curtis and Juan Miranda, who have done a good job in the role since being called up from Triple-A but have never experienced the kind of pressure that awaits the Yankees in the final months of the season and the playoffs. Both Curtis and Miranda were optioned to Scranton to make roster space for Berkman and Austin Kearns, another trade-deadline acquisition.
GM Brian Cashman sees the kind of calculated risk that costs the Yankees next to nothing -- the Astros are paying a portion of the $7.5 million still owed Berkman for this year and the $2 million club buyout due to him for 2011 -- and could bring them plenty of dividends.
"I was trying to secure upgrades over players we already had," Cashman said, "and I feel we did that."
Berkman said all he wants is to find his role on the team.
"I don't want to disrupt things, I don't want to make any waves, I just want to fit in," he said. "I'm happy just to be a spoke in the wheel."
A wheel that, at long last, has rolled from Houston to the Bronx.